Alaska had more visitors last summer than ever before

Last summer set a record for the number of visitors to Alaska.

More than 1.8 million people visited Alaska from May through September of 2016, "the highest visitor volume on record" for that period since such estimates began in 1985, according to a new report put together by consulting firm the McDowell Group for the Alaska Travel Industry Association and the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development.

That reflects a 4 percent bump in the number of visitors to Alaska compared to summer 2015. Compared to 2007, last year saw about 8 percent more travelers from Outside.

People also spent about 4 percent more money on their trips than they did in 2015, the report said, at an average of about $1,057 per person. Visitor spending, not counting the cost of getting to and from destinations, came in at $1.97 billion last summer, up 31 percent from five years prior.

Sarah Leonard, president of ATIA, points to marketing campaigns in recent years as one of the reasons for growth.

"I think there are other things we can't always control that are happening around the world that impact visitation," she said, noting a strong dollar and low fuel prices, "but I think marketing your destination works."

Now, though, the state's tourism marketing budget has shrunk enormously. In 2013, the state allocated more than $18 million for such marketing, and now that number is down to $1.5 million for this fiscal year. One impact of that, Leonard said, is that the state no longer does television advertising for tourism.


"We're concerned about what will happen two, three years down the road," Leonard said. 

Usually, these reports examining visitors to the state take into account the whole year, Leonard said, but there weren't enough resources to gather data for all of 2016.

Other numbers also indicate the recent strength of Alaska's tourism industry: Last year, Visit Anchorage CEO Julie Saupe said the state landed 2 million visitors in 2015, the first year to hit that mark, and the 2016 cruise ship season brought in 1 million travelers for the first time since 2009.

[Alaska cruise ship visitors expected to increase again in 2017]

A little more than half of the people who came to Alaska last summer came via cruise ship, while an estimated 40 percent used air travel and 5 percent came to or left the state via highway or ferry, the report said. Most people chose Southeast as their destination, with the cruise ports in Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway as the most-visited spots in the state last summer.

The numbers include people who are visiting for a variety of reasons, including business trips, but the leading reason by far was for vacations.

To get the estimate, the McDowell Group came up with visitor-resident ratios by counting roughly 57,000 travelers leaving Alaska, and then applying those ratios to traffic data to come up with estimates. The state has periodically commissioned the visitor studies since 1985.

Annie Zak

Annie Zak was a business reporter for the ADN between 2015 and 2019.